The Birth and Death of an Innovative Idea – 3 “Why Does History Seem Perfect?”

This is a question asked by Scott Berkun, in his The Myths of Innovation. The rationale Berkun gives is that history vets out the weaker and the unfit, much like natural selection. In Berkun’s view, what resists time is what resists the conditions.

In the previous piece, we discussed the external determiners that influenced the lifespan of an innovation such as social compatibility, financial resources, and social and political biases, and even luck and aura. In this piece, we will delve into the internal dynamics of successful innovation; what is in the hands of the innovator.

You must remember Dr. Horace Wells, the hapless dentist from the previous piece whose idea of dental anesthetics is stolen by his colleague. Dr. Wells fancied that nitrous-oxide, then known as laughing gas, could prevent pain. However, if inhaled too little, it did not block pain, as Dr. Wells would learn in a painful way, during a test open to the public, When inhaled too much, on the other hand, it caused oxygen deprivation and death. William Morton, who was inspired by Wells’ idea of painless dental surgery, found a more viable alternative, an ether and chloroform mixture. Clearly, Morton also experimented with various amounts and found the right dosage, making his innovation more calculated and efficient. Although, it may be true that Dr. Wells was the more creative and daring of two rivals, Morton was the better innovator. He keenly observed the current goings-on in the field, and patched the cavities in Wells’ idea.

However, observing the present is not good enough. For reasons discussed in the previous installment of this series, every major innovation first presents itself as a threat to the safety and habituality of the world of known things. Thus, every major step is first met with wary looks. Due to this antagonization, every innovation in the early stages of its existence is feeble; almost as feeble as the human in its original state. But as we can learn from the history of the humankind, what is most constantly tested is what has the highest chance for endurance. Lessons learned from the lost battles to predators and nature, humans started to use the nature against itself; first with stones and tree branches, then with fire and so on. In an innovation context, Waldo Hitcher calls this “product archaeology”; an active search of inspirations and precedents of today’s innovations, and active effort to avoid the pitfalls that swallowed them. This allows the innovator to constantly adapt his/her product to the needs and conditions of the present and envision the future versions.

Even the most well-established, immortal, mass-produced products were once innovative, and to endure their presence and profitability, they need to pose as if they still are. (A three-angled toothbrush is just as good as a twelve-angled one, but they keep adding angles and rubber pieces to massage your gums.) These additive features, or micro-innovations satisfy the society’s need to see signs for progress and betterment of life. In a world such signs are expected even from toothbrushes and Tupperware, real innovation has no choice but project a constant-search, an internal mobility that prepares the innovations of today for tomorrow, or in Hitcher’s words; effective “product ballistics”.

This is a quite fancy term, but in its essence, it means aiming for the next big thing. It means harnessing the inspirations and lessons of yesterday to meet the needs of tomorrow; like a VR headset that also massages your gums. Or maybe not that.

If I were asked to give that a name, I would opt for Berkun’s “innovation continuum” rather than Hitcher’s “product archaeology and ballistics”. Because contrary to what popular view and history-themed costume parties might suggest, we are not living a refinement of history. Thus, true innovation cannot be a more effective redesign, it should be contextualized within history to have or feet on the ground, but should be oriented towards the horizon. Moreover, it should be better contextualized and better oriented than its contemporaries for imitative design and functionality can easily disqualify a product from being an innovation and can make it a variety, a small perk of capitalism.

For better historical perception breeds experience and creative foresight breeds value, any innovator desiring to stay alive must combine experience with originality, just like King Gilgamesh did millenia ago. He wished to become immortal, so he found the man who survived the deluge, got his formula for immortality, then luckily lost it, and came up with his own; to live through his works, and does he.


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